Children's Circus Flourishes Despite Afghan War

Collection with 23 media items created by Sergey Ponomarev

10 Nov 2014 08:00

Surrounded by mountains and divided into sectors by concrete blast walls, there is a place in Kabul where you can dive into an atmosphere of colors and children’s joy. For the war-torn, landlocked Afghanistan – after more than three decades suffering from multiple invasions and religious conservatism - circus is giving Afghan youth a positive outlet: and they sure put on a show.

Vivid colors and girls singing and juggling still shocks conservative elders, but after a while their smiles give them away. Entering the door to the circus’ main center in Kabul means stepping into a world of fun and colors, where boys and girls practice together and take charge of their own learning.

The Circus was founded in 2002, less than a year after the fall of the Taliban regime, which banned music and dance. While NGOs and government programs focused on building roads, schools and basic education systems, David Mason, who was a former tango dance instructor, and his co-director Berit Muhlhausen, a former journalist, focused on introducing and developing soft values that bring children together and create joyful communities.

The first idea was an orphanage with space for creativity, but they wanted to reach as many kids as possible. A traveling circus proved an excellent opportunity. After all, circus is all about overcoming fear. It's about trust. It's based on non-verbal communication; it represents a multicultural tradition, and its purpose is to make people smile.

For the last 10 years, more than 2.7 million spectators in 25 provinces have enjoyed a performance or participated in one of the hundreds of workshops, despite the reality in Afghanistan that conservative society, especially in rural provinces of Afghanistan, doesn’t accept public arts.

“If we go to remote regions and perform in a very conservative area where mullahs will say ‘no,’ then we adjust our performance,” Berit said. “Maybe we perform without music, less joking, no signing, or we start with the prayer from the holy Quran; and then they relax and see that this is harmless and it’s not dangerous.”

Mohammed Sadat, 13, from Bamiyan dreamt to become a gymnast, and once he found a circus show in one of the schools, he joined them. In the future, he said, he sees himself in two ways: first, becoming a gymnastics coach for young kids, and second, studying and becoming an engineer to help reconstructing his country. For now, he is part of the acrobatic team that builds human pyramids during performances.

In the circus garden in Kabul, girls sing and juggle with clubs and tennis balls, while boys perform backward somersaults and cartwheels and form human pyramids. All together they stage educational performances on the importance of hygiene, school attendance, landmine awareness and malaria prevention. The main goal is to entertain and give joy to an audience of their peers from camps for internally displaced people, schools and orphanages.

Shamsot, 14, is the son of an high ranking officer in the Afghan military who chose to be a circus clown. “I’m really happy to see smiles on the faces of those poor kids,” he said. Berit and David were afraid that Shamsot’s parents wouldn’t be happy with what their son is doing, but after seeing the show they encouraged him to continue training and performing with the circus.

In its centers in Kabul and Bamiyan, and with the help of trained children in other provinces, the circus organizes festivals and joyful events each year, inspiring Afghans as well as internationals to forget the dust and the war for a while - to join the fun and smile a bit.

Afghanistan Circus Children Education School Kabul Bamian Theater Artistic Performance Joke

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Title photo for the collection
Afghanistan circus 01
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
20 Apr 2013

Afghan kids from an IDP camp watch a circus show by performers from the Afghan mobile circus for children in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 02
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
15 May 2013

Pedestrians watch the circus performance through a gate in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 03
Bamiyan, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
18 May 2013

Children from the Sour Khdar school attend a show performed by other children in their school yard, in Bamiyan.

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Afghanistan circus 04
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
14 May 2013

A school audience watches a performance in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 05
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
21 Apr 2013

Girls juggle with clubs and balls during a show in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 06
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
14 May 2013

Young circus performers wait in a bus before their performance at an elementary school in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 07
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
29 Apr 2013

A young acrobat practices in the circus gym in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 08
Bamiyan, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
16 May 2013

Young performers practice acrobatics in the circus compound in Bamiyan.

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Afghanistan circus 10
Bamiyan, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
18 May 2013

Members of the circus wait for their turn to perform, watching the performance behind a curtain in their makeshift classroom in Bamiyan.

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Afghanistan circus 11
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
29 Apr 2013

An Afghan school boy, and member of the circus, juggles on the outskirts of Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 12
Bamiyan, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
16 May 2013

The circus bus makes its way through the mountains in Bamiyan province, carrying the mobile circus performers to their next location.

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Afghanistan circus 13
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
30 Apr 2013

A circus employee plays football in the circus yard in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 15
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
01 May 2013

A circus performer looks from the bus window at the girls waiting to see her performance in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 16
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
20 Apr 2013

Afghan girls play in the yard at the circus compound in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 17
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
30 Apr 2013

Circus performers lead kids from IDP refugee camp to watch a performance in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 18
Kabul, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
29 Apr 2013

Children watch a circus performer juggling at a refugee camp in Kabul.

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Afghanistan circus 20
Bamiyan, Afghanistan
By Sergey Ponomarev
18 May 2013

Afghan children smile while watching one of the mobile circus' performances in Bamiyan.

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Afghanistan circus 23
Kabul
By Sergey Ponomarev
10 May 2013

Shamsot, 14, is the son of an high ranking officer in the Afghan military who chose to be a circus clown. "I'm really happy to see smiles on the faces of those poor kids," he said. Berit and David were afraid that Shamsot's parents wouldn't be happy with what their son is doing, but after seeing the show they encouraged him to continue training and performing with the circus.

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Afghanistan circus 22
Bamiyan
By Sergey Ponomarev
15 May 2013

Mohammed Sadat, 13, from Bamiyan, dreamt of becoming a gymnast. Once he saw a circus show in one of the schools, he joined it. In the future, he says, he sees himself in two ways: first, becoming a gymnastics coach for young kids, and second, studying and becoming an engineer to help reconstructing his country. For now, he is part of the acrobatic team that builds human pyramids during performances.

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Afghanistan circus 21
Bamiyan
By Sergey Ponomarev
17 May 2013

Mohammed Sadat, 13, practices juggling with his fellow circus performers in Bamiyan.